The Hidden Triggers of Autoimmune Disease: Integrative Medicine Explains

Autoimmune diseases are on the rise in America. More and more people are being diagnosed with these conditions that affect nearly 1 in 15 Americans. There is still much to learn about the root causes of autoimmune diseases like Crohn's disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, but integrative medicine has identified several potential triggers that may contribute to their development. In this blog post, we will discuss some of the most common (and not-so-common) triggers of autoimmune diseases. We will also talk about who is most at risk for developing autoimmune disorders and one crucial factor that seems to play a role in their development.

Learn about conditions we treat: Autoimmune Disease

Why do autoimmune diseases develop?

In order to understand autoimmune disease, it's important to first get a basic understanding of your immune system. Your immune system employs a number of complex tissues and cells to protect the body against pathogens. The immune system produces antibodies that detect and attack any harmful invaders.

In the case of autoimmune diseases, the antibodies produced by your immune system flag your own cells and tissues as harmful. An autoimmune disease diagnosis depends on which system your immune system attacks. That is, if it's the thyroid, it's referred to as autoimmune Hashimoto's thyroiditis. If it's the joints, rheumatoid arthritis, and so on.

However, it's important to understand that with all autoimmune diseases, it's the same immune system attacking various bodily systems.

Related: 6 Steps to Boost Your Immune System

For an autoimmune disease to occur, there are two common factors:

  1. A genetic predisposition, which includes certain gene variants involving MTHFR or TYK2 (1)
  2. A triggering event such as an illness or stressful life event

Many autoimmune diseases arise from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A genetic predisposition sets the stage for autoimmune diseases by altering the development or function of cells within the immune system.

Read more: 11 Natural Ways to Manage Autoimmune Flares

Who's at risk for developing an autoimmune disease?

Overall, women are at a greater risk of developing autoimmune diseases. About 78% of people who have an autoimmune disease are women (2). Risk factors such as stress and obesity affect men and women.

Autoimmune disease risk factors

  • Certain medications
  • Smoking
  • Having relatives with autoimmune diseases. Some diseases are genetic
  • Already having one autoimmune disease
  • Exposure to toxins or heavy metals
  • Being female  
  • Obesity
  • Previous infections, such as Epstein-Barr or Mononucleosis (Mono), Covid-19, or measles

You might like: Need Extra Immune Protection? Look to Vitamin D.

Want to learn more?

What causes autoimmune disease?  

The exact cause of all autoimmune disease is unknown, but the most recent evidence suggests it’s likely due to a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors. Things like environment, stress, and diet play a role.

When someone develops an autoimmune disease it’s because the immune system confuses healthy tissue belonging to your own body, with that of a harmful pathogen.

Autoimmune diseases and stress

There is a strong link between autoimmune diseases and stress (3). Stress, whether physical, mental, or emotional takes a toll on the body and can compromise the immune system, leading to common autoimmune diseases. 

Patients often report a stressful life event or high levels of chronic stress prior to the development of autoimmune disease symptoms. It’s also common to experience flare ups of autoimmune symptoms during or after a stressful event or illness.

Read: 7 At-Home Tips for Stress

Genetic triggers

Most autoimmune disease patients have a family history of autoimmune disease. And while not every person with a family member who has an autoimmune disease will have one themselves, it does increase the likelihood that a triggering event may cause one.

For example, the main determinants for genetic susceptibility to celiac disease are HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1, which are carried by almost all patients affected (4). Among those people who have these genetic variants, the risk of developing celiac disease is much higher than that of those with the variants. 

Genetic testing to determine your true risk factors for many autoimmune diseases is available at CentreSpringMD.

Leaky gut, or intestinal permeability

Healthy gut bacteria help regulate the production and function of specialized immune cells, such as T cells, as well as different types of microbial enzymes that impact genetic expression (5). Without a healthy and balanced gut, as is the case with a “leaky” gut, the likelihood of developing autoimmune conditions increases (6).

A leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability, allows normally harmless bacteria to leave the intestine and pass into circulation, triggering inflammation and an overactive immune response. This creates a condition or an opportunity for immune diseases to either start or worsen.

Oftentimes, a comprehensive approach to autoimmune disease treatment will involve healing the gut, in addition to addressing other factors like sleep, stress, and diet.

Environmental Triggers for Autoimmune Disease

There is strong evidence that environmental factors, like toxins and infections, play a role in the development of autoimmune disease.

Exposure to toxins

Heavy metals, PCBs, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs or PFOAs) are significant risk factors in the development of autoimmune diseases. PFCs in particular contribute to the dysregulation of immune function and favor the development of autoimmune diseases (7).  

Heavy metals, such as mercury are linked to autoimmune and inflammatory diseases including Lupus, which occurs at “significantly higher rates” among dental workers and others exposed to mercury (8).

Read more: Lessen Toxic Burden to Support Immune Function

Dietary triggers

Gluten, a protein found within wheat, doesn’t directly cause autoimmune disease, but it may play a significant role. Gluten has been shown to increase intestinal permeability through its impact on tight-junctions (9). Wheat and gluten are also problematic for other autoimmune conditions, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is the most common cause of low or underactive thyroid. 


Infections can trigger autoimmune disease, especially in people with a genetic predisposition. Autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), are thought to be triggered by past viral infections (10). 

For example, RA (an inflammatory autoimmune disease that affects the joints) has been associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection.

Read: How to Reduce Inflammation to Combat Joint Pain & Arthritis


On some estimates, as much as 50% of autoimmune onset can be attributed to a stressful environmental trigger. This stress can be emotional, physical, or internal. Many people report high emotional stress in the period leading up to an autoimmune presentation (11).  

Excessive hygiene

The “hygiene hypothesis” states that the immune system relies on input from exposure to dirt, bacteria, and other germs in early life to “teach” the immune system how to develop normally. And that our obsession with sanitizing our environment has led to an increase in immune-related issues, such as autoimmune disease (12). 


Women are at increased risk of developing autoimmune conditions, especially within the first year after birth (13). 

Prevent autoimmune disease with integrative medicine

Autoimmune diseases develop as a result of a combination of genetic and environmental triggers, including diet, stress, toxin exposure, and inflammation. By identifying and decreasing common triggers, you may also be able to decrease the likelihood of developing some common autoimmune diseases.

Functional medicine therapies to support immune function include:

IV Drip Therapy – A simple and easy way to deliver nutrients directly to cells that need them. You’ll find unique drips at CentreSpringMD to support immunity and boost antioxidant status.

MTHFR and genetic testing – For individuals with certain genetic variations, extra care helps support a healthy immune response. Your integrative doctor will help you navigate these factors.

Contact a provider to learn more about individualized autoimmune disease treatment.

Autoimmune Diet & Lifestyle 

Reduce your exposure to heavy metals, pesticides, and other harmful additives that make their way into your body via diet. Focus on quality proteins, healthy fats, and an abundance of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables—organically grown, if possible. 

In addition, here are some helpful immune supplements to consider:

  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin C
  • Fermented foods or probiotics
  • Omega-3 fats from fish oil
  • Zinc
  • Inflammation modulating functional foods like turmeric and ginger
  • Immune supportive blends containing astragalus

To further reduce your risk of developing and autoimmune disease

  • Get adequate sleep. Poor sleep puts your body in a state of prolonged physiological stress, leading to a multitude of health problems.
  • Stay active. Activities that support healthy blood flow and deep breathing are beneficial. Yoga, strength training, swimming, biking, tai chi, and brisk walking are great immune-supportive activities.
  • Decrease stress. Chronic stress contributes to inflammation and immune dysregulation. Begin intentional relaxation with journaling, therapeutic massage, or meditation.
  • Work with a functional medicine doctor to determine your true risk factors for autoimmune disease.

Contact a patient care coordinator to begin your journey to autoimmune disease remission.

Decrease your risk of autoimmune disease with functional medicine

While autoimmune diseases are on the rise, there are things you can do to help decrease your risk of developing one. Supporting a healthy immune system is key, and this can be done by eating a nutrient-rich diet, minimizing stress levels, and avoiding common environmental triggers. Additionally, if you have a family history of autoimmune disease or other risk factors, consider genetic testing to identify any potential vulnerabilities. With knowledge comes power in the fight against autoimmune diseases – arm yourself with the information you need to make healthy choices for yourself and your loved ones.


  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01839-6
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3328995
  3. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2685155
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6502200/
  5. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2019.00426/full   
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4742538/ 
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4439925/
  8. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171116142056.htm
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384703/
  10. https://elifesciences.org/articles/71121
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18190880 
  12. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2021.635935/full
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3234360/


autoimmune disease, autoimmune disorder

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